Are you confused about how NMRA Contests work?

Are you put off by stories of “too much paperwork”?

From discussions with various members it became obvious that people are confused about Contests

NMRA British Region Logo

“Here comes the judge!” – a look at NMRA British Region contests 

I hope this article can clear things up a bit and encourage you to enter a Contest in the future. First let me clear up a few of the most common misapprehensions.

“I have to be part of the Achievement Program to enter a Contest”. This is not so. Any member can enter a Contest. The misunderstanding arises because awards gained in the main Contest classes can count towards the Achievement Program.

“I have to attend a Contest venue to enter.” Wrong again! You do not have to attend a Contest to enter. If you can get your model to the Contest along with the paperwork you can enter. This is known as a “proxy entry”. For more information contact the Contest Chairman.

“You only stand a chance if everything is completely scratch built”. Not at all. Many models entered in the Contest have been kit bashed or constructed by merging one or more (say) buildings to complete the model.

“N Scale doesn’t stand a chance”. Models of all scales are judged on the same basis using the Judges’ marking matrix. We are scale blind when analysing and judging models.

“Only models of North American prototypes are allowed.” Not at all. The model does not have to be based on a North American prototype. It can be British or European or based on whatever location and era you may choose to model.

What is there to stop you entering a Contest? In this article I’ll look at why I think you should consider entering a Contest. I’ll explain what the judges will be looking for and how you can present your model in the best light. I’ll also describe what happens behind the doors of the Contest room.

Contest Judging

When you choose to enter any NMRA sponsored model, module, photo and/or arts and crafts contest, you will be testing your skills as a modeller, photographer or crafter. Your work will be judged on its own merits and not be compared with other entries during the judging process. The judges do not know the names of the entrants so personalities can’t get in the way of fairness.

After the judging is complete the judges are often willing to discuss your entry with you. One thing judges will never do, of course, is to get involved in discussion of someone else’s model.

So why enter a Contest?

Some people are put off by the competitive and public nature of Contests. Others feel that entering Contests is a form of showing off. So why enter? Well I can only give my own reasons. The first is to see if I can win. Trying to build a contest-winning model gives my modelling extra focus. Then there is the possibility of earning a Merit award. Merit Awards can be awarded in the Contest and these are able to count towards the Achievement Program. Achievement Program assessors and Contest judges use the same set of criteria so you can still get the Achievement Program recognition for a good model, even though it might not be a Contest class winner.

Contest classes for models

There are 11 contest classes for models:

Steam locomotives
Diesel locomotives and others
Passenger cars
Freight cars
Maintenance of way
There are two structure classes:
Structures on-line is for railroad related structures.
Structures off-line is for non-railroad structures such as farm houses, restaurants etc.
Displays or dioramas
If you are unsure where your model fits, please contact the Contest Chairman.

The Judging Scheme

One of the problems for the judges is the variety of models they will encounter. For example, how do you judge a so-so scratch built model against a nicely done kit-bash?

To handle this kind of situation, the NMRA has put together a set of criteria to cover the various aspects of a model, plus a points-scoring system to assess them. This fairly rigid structure is intended to make the judges as objective as possible. It also forces them to assess one aspect of a model at a time. This ensures, for example, that the quality of paint finish is assessed separately from the quality of construction and so on.


Models are judged by awarding points against the same set of criteria as the criteria used in the Achievement Program: the maximum possible score is 125 points; in an NMRA contest, the model with the highest score wins the specific model contest class.

Points are awarded against the following criteria:

Construction – 40 points
Detail – 20 points
Conformity – 25 points
Finish – 25 points
Scratch Building – 15 points

Total – 125 points
(the apportionment of points is a bit different in the “module” contest category)

What are the judges looking for in the different criteria?

Let’s go through them in order and try to get an idea.


The judges are trying to answer the following sorts of questions. “Is the model put together well?” “Is it “square?” “Are the joints neat with no excess glue or solder?” “Are the appropriate materials used?” The other considerations are how complex the model is and how difficult it was to build. To help the judges, the NMRA has produced a matrix suggesting how points should be awarded for combinations of complexity and quality of work. A matrix of this type is available for each of the other four criteria.

In many cases form 902 will be adequate to describe how your model was made. Use an additional sheet if you need more space. If you did something that proved very difficult, but isn’t obvious, be sure to mention it so you get the credit. If you used magazine plans, or drew your own, include a photocopy of these.


What the judges are looking for here is only the quantity of detail added to the model. Since the judges are interested in the quantity of added detail, be sure to include a comprehensive list.


In this category the question is “How close is the model to the real thing?” It isn’t possible to over emphasise the importance of good information covering this area. Without it, the judges can’t assess conformity and will award a low score. There doesn’t have to be a huge amount of information so long as it allows the accuracy of the model to be assessed. A couple of good, clear, photos of the prototype will really help the judges. A plan of the prototype will also help. However, it is also important that the amount provided is sensible and helpful.

Judges are interested in prototypical accuracy. They will note missing items such as fuel fillers on diesel locomotives or technically incorrect features – such as ash shakers on an oil burning steam locomotive. The judges can’t possibly know every detail about every prototype, so it is important to include information with your documentation to help them give you full credit for this conformity element. We’ll discuss documentation in more detail later.


It is also worth noting that if for any reason you have elected to omit some part or piece of equipment then the reasons for this should be explained in your descriptions or additional notes.

There have been instances where the amount of supplementary information was totally “over the top”. Reading it would have taken an age and much of it was repetitive. To guard against this there is a “get out clause” in the rules that allows the judges to decide whether or not to consider supplemental information. To decide what to include, put yourself in the judges’ shoes and ask, “What would be helpful?”. Of course, the other big consideration is “What would gain me extra points?”

“Freelanced” models present a problem. By definition there can’t be prototype photos or plans. However, freelanced models are usually based on one or more real vehicles or structures. Photos and drawings of these will demonstrate that you have followed prototype practice and that your model is logical.


In most cases a simple description of what you did, and the materials used will suffice. If you did something unusual, like hand lettering or producing your own artwork for decals, be sure to draw attention to it. Finish covers painting, lettering and weathering. Note that models are not penalised if they are not weathered. Remember though, that if they are “ex-works” they do need to be pristine. Once again, the complexity of the work comes into the picture. Clearly a well-done, complex, multi-coloured diesel should score more points than an equally well-done plain black diesel switcher. Incidentally, models will not be penalised for the quality of purchased decals. They will be penalised if they are poorly applied though.

Scratch Building

A list of scratch built parts is adequate. Scratch building points are awarded for how much of the model is scratch built, and how difficult the scratch built items are. As with the other criteria, there is a matrix to help judges assign points. Remember that form 902 and any supporting information is the only chance you have to “speak” to the judges when they judge your model so make sure you get credit for all the work you have done.

The relationship between Contests and the Achievement Program

If a model achieves a score of 87.5 points (which is 70% of the maximum score of 125 points) or above 87.5, the model earns a Merit Award. For NMRA members following the Achevement Program this Merit Award can count towards the respective Achievement Program category requirements.

However, it is not necessary to enter a Contest to gain a Merit Award. The Achievement Program Chair and their Assistants assess models using the same criteria but within the Achievement Program enabling models to gain a Merit Award for those not wishing to, or able to, enter Contests.

Entering the Contest and Contest documentation

The Contest Chairman will announce when Contests are to be held in Roundhouse. This will give the date of the Contest and how to obtain entry forms.

For each model, module or craft item you enter you will need two entry forms. On the first (form 901, “Contest Entry Form”) you give your name, a one-line description of your model, module or craft item and your valuation of it for insurance purposes. As this form includes your name, the judges will never see it: all judging is anonymous. The form is only used by the Contest Chairman to keep track of the models. You can also include any special handling instructions on this sheet. For example, “if you turn it upside down the roof falls off”! The Contest Chairman will pass these instructions on to the judges.

The second form (form 902, “Judges Score Sheet”) allows you to describe your model for the judges – this is for models only; for Arts and Crafts use form 906. Since form 902 is a single sheet, it only allows a few lines for each of the five criteria: Construction, Detail, Conformity, Finish and Detailing, but you can include additional sheets as necessary. Use these to give the judges a clear picture of what you have done and present your model in the best light.

For photo entries you will only need to complete form 901 with your name, details and a title for the photo you are submitting along with its valuation for insurance purposes, plus of course your signature.

Note: It is important that you do not include your name or other details on either the model or supporting material as this will lead to disqualification.

What happens in the Contest Room?

There will be a specified time when you (or your representative if this is a proxy entry) must deliver your model and documentation to the Contest room. You will be given a receipt that will allow you to reclaim your model later. The Contest personnel group all models in the same class, together with their documentation and then judging is ready to start. It used to be customary that all judging was done in behind closed doors. However, attendees can now be present during the judging. There is one rule however that must be observed: that no one is allowed to talk either to judges or between themselves.

The judges normally work in teams of two or three. New “apprentice” judges are usually grouped with two experienced judges in three–person teams.

First everyone examines a model and gives their points score for the criterion being judged. Often, they are in close agreement but occasionally there are differences. This usually turns out to be because one judge has spotted something that the others have missed. After discussion, the judges agree on a points score and move on.

The Judges’ comments

The judges will comment briefly about each model either on the front of the 902 if space allows or on the reverse of the form. These comments will provide specific positive comments on his or her model or suggest positive ways that the modeller might improve on the work submitted.

A model contest judge, and, or, a member of the Contest staff is always available to answer any questions you might have.

How about becoming a judge?

The NMRA British Region always needs new Contest Judges. The more there are, the quicker the job can be done. You don’t need to be a great modeller, you just need to be able to understand the judging criteria, to be logical and to have a good “eye”. From comments of non-judges visiting the contest room, it is clear that we have many discerning members whose expertise would be an asset. As mentioned earlier, new judges always work with more experienced people initially, so you won’t be “thrown in at the deep end”. From a personal viewpoint I found that becoming a judge really helped my own modelling. It is a privilege to spend some time examining the work of skilled modellers and the discussions with the other judges adds to the experience.

So it’s over to you.

Entering a contest is easy and can be very satisfying. If you already have a model you are proud of why not enter next year’s contest when the details are announced? If you haven’t anything at the moment there’s enough time between now and the convention to build a model to enter. If you would like to discuss your plans, please contact the Contest Chairman. Send an e-mail to

Further information

There is more information on the NMRA website ( There is a contest section that gives general information but focuses mainly on the annual National Contest. Details of the judging scheme, guidance for judges etc is given in the Achievement Program index. There are ten pages of information with the necessary support to let you print them. These pages include the guidance given to judges and include the matrices they use. They are well worth reading. You can get to this information from the NMRA home page or directly from where you can read or download all sorts of informative documents to help you understand what is involved.

Revised and updated by David McLaughlin 2020.

Revised and updated by Terry Wynne 2008.

Original document produced by Tom Winlow in 2001.

Contest Form Guide

An entry form (#901) including name and address, NMRA membership number, model scale, category and item name or title must be filled out for each model submitted. A claim ticket will be provided for each item entered.

A Judge’s Score Sheet for the Judged Model Contest (#902), Module Contest (#903) and the Arts & Crafts Contest (#906) must also be filled out and submitted. It is permissible to additionally submit a typed sheet(s) containing all requested information in lieu of entering the information on the official score sheet. However, the information for each factor (construction, conformity, detail, etc.) must be presented in the same order. The People’s Choice Awards, the Model Showcase and the Photo Contest do not require a Judging Sheet.

Please leave the contest entry number box blank as an entry number will be assigned. The plan is to use Cloak-room tickets for this, and those numbers will then double as entry numbers for any popular vote contest run at the same time.

If you wish to enter an item for any of the donated awards, please advise the Contest Chairman in plenty of time, as some of these are judged by the donator, and that person may not be present at the time and will need to provide a proxy to judge them.

If you are running a Popular Vote contest at your Meet, then you should be able to find downloadable forms on this website.

Contest Forms

The following are the forms needed for entry into the Convention Contest. You are able to either download individual files, or download all the documents in one Contest Pack.

• Contest Pack (all the forms in one download)
• NMRA BR Form #901 (required for each entry)
• NMRA BR Form #902 (for Model Contest)
• Competition Rules and Classes for NMRA BR
• Rules for Reffin Award

For Meet Contest Managers

• Popular Vote form
• Popular Vote Ballot form